By Adam Gustine
Recently, I have seen a slew of blog posts and twitter updates from pastors, both high and low profile, who have said something like, “I’m down on Christians who ____”, or “I can’t stand Christians who ______.”
This isn’t the, oftentimes, intense online dialogue between church leaders who hold differing views. Passionate critique and dialogue between ministry leaders can be helpful (although we cross a lot of lines here too).
These are pastors taking aim at ordinary Christians. Presumably, people in their community. I don’t know if you have noticed this trend or not, but it seems to be jumping out at me more and more. Sometimes it is explicit condemnation, other times it is a harsh, angry tone that seems to betray the same inner feeling.
From what I can tell, the Christians these leaders are ‘down on’ are the ones who simply ‘don’t get it.’ The ones who have embraced legalism instead of grace, the ones who value tradition rather than the Spirit of God at work today, the ones whose character does not reflect the fruit of the Spirit.
But I have a few questions: What does it say about our character when we are willing to publicly insult or condemn someone, particularly someone who is part of the community of faith? How does this give evidence to the fruit of the Spirit in our lives? What is it doing to our souls as pastors when we publish the fact that we are ‘down’ on fellow believers?
Now, I am the first to admit that frustration seems to be part of the pastoral vocation. People who don’t see things the way you do, or have the same vision for the church, or who aren’t open to new or fresh approaches to being the church can create a lot of disappointment.
But it seems to me that if every Christian ‘got it’ there wouldn’t be much need for pastors. If we didn’t struggle with sinful self-centeredness, there wouldn’t be much need for grace either. So should the fact that people struggle to live faithfully surprise us?
The longer I reflect on this trend, and, quite frankly, my own heart, I find myself challenged by two insights that we should always keep in front of us as pastors.
- Community is not an ideal.
It seems to me that at the root of many of these public attacks (that is what they are, after all, subtle as they may, or may not, be) is disappointment in the unrealized ideal of Christian community. A particular pastor is passionate to see the community he/she is a leader within become more faithful, to see more people come to a deeper understanding of grace and love. This is honorable.
However, the fruit of such a passion oftentimes is not. To this end, I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together.
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.
I think this is an accurate diagnosis of the root problem. As pastors we tend to gravitate toward, and think highly of Christians who ‘get it’ like we do. Those who don’t get it, well it would be better if they weren’t around. Those are the Christians in the crosshairs of our venom. Bonhoeffer points out, that even our judgmental pretension can come from decent intentions. But at the core it is fatally flawed.
This leads me to the second insight; this time from Eugene Peterson.
- Our job as pastors isn’t to fix people, its to lead them to worship God.
Eugene Peterson reflects on his own experience in pastoral ministry, and the constant struggle pastors have in this regard.
I suddenly realized that I was gradually becoming more interested in dealing with my congregation…as problems to be fixed rather than as members of the household of God to be led in the worship and service of God….I was slipping into the habit of identifying and dealing with my congregation as problems, reducing them to problems that I might be able to do something about.
By reducing them to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as pastor.
When we take to public criticism of our congregation, I think that we have reduced the people of God to problems for the fixing. Maybe the frustration that spills out into the blogsphere stems from our anger that we haven’t, as of yet, figured out how to find the solution to the ‘problem’ people in our community. Perhaps, we find the rant to be therapeutic for our fragile egos that so often feel as though we ought to be able to have an answer for everything; we ought to be able to solve every problem, and we have decided that problem is a person(s).
In doing so, we have utterly missed the point. God is wooing people to himself, we are driving them away. Unfortunate indeed.
I am struck by how often these pastor’s public statements invoke Jesus public statements against stale religion and legalistic ritual. It seems we use Jesus condemnation of the Pharisees, and pharisaical religiosity, to go after people in our church.
But, while it is true that Jesus was not a fan of ritual religiosity, isn’t it accurate to say that his public condemnation was for the religious leaders themselves; who used their expertise, authority and power to oppress the ordinary person; the leaders who had a very narrow definition of what true belief looked like in practice and used that narrow definition to control people and get them to submit to their religious agenda?
When we make public pronouncements about ordinary people and their faith and criticize them for their failures and create division by defining the people who get it and applauding them over against the people who don’t; aren’t we doing the same thing? Who is the Pharisee in this equation? I’ve come to think Jesus might have stronger words for us than for the people we are so fixated on.
There is a difference between calling people to faithfulness through the proclamation of God’s Kingdom from within a particular community…and taking potshots in the blogosphere.
I don’t speak as one who has conquered this in my own heart. The trends I’m seeing are at work in my life, the same way I’m sure that they are lurking just around the corner for most pastors. I’m sure I’ve transgressed in this area, and I’m sure I will again. In fact, the longer I have reflected on this, the more I see my need for repentance.
In times like this, I’m thankful for the reminders from men like Bonhoeffer and Peterson. I’m thankful that they saw/see it better than I do, that there are more charitable and grace-filled voices that call us into our true vocation as shepherds within the community of God.
And I’m REALLY thankful God doesn’t log every way in which I fail to ‘get it’ and write blog posts about it…
Adam Gustine is senior pastor at First EFC in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow Adam on Twitter here.